Harlan Hambright did not purposefully set out to document the stuff of Knoxville that was about to be vanquished—mostly, he was just attracted to the city’s weird scenes and odd occurrences.
Little did he know, as a young man learning his trade in the 1970s, that the places he was photographing would soon be banished from a city that wanted to modernize itself and become more like anywhere else. Armed with interstate exits, shopping-mall ideals, surface parking, glass siding for old buildings, and a World’s Fair, city planners proceeded to smooth over a lot of Knoxville’s rough edges in the 1980s. But Hambright managed to record them before the times changed, creating a unique portfolio of a forgotten Knoxville—many of his photos have remained unseen for the past 40 years.
The Young High School grad was a freshman in the University of Tennessee’s architecture program in 1969, but his primary obsession at the time was photography. He was most attracted to the street photos of masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith, and he aimed to capture similarly candid scenes of people in Knoxville’s streets. He signed on with UT’s Daily Beacon as a photographer and carried two Nikons with him wherever he went—one with a telephoto lens, one wide-angle, both loaded with Tri-X film and ready to shoot.
“I was hunting for pictures wherever I went,” Hambright recalls now from his home in St. Simons Island, Ga. “And if I saw something, I would just get it.”
And he did—inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s philosophy of pursuing the “decisive moment” of any particular scene, Hambright was ever on the prowl to record the precise intersections of people, places, light, and action. You can see it in the shot he calls “Ethereal Pilaster,” of a ghostly column floating among downtown pedestrians, or “S&W Shadow,” with an older woman transfixed by a shadowy telephone pole rather than by the hip 1970s businessman striding by in a wide tie and platform boots.
Later, the young Hambright decided to integrate his field of study—architecture—into his photography. He purchased a large-format 4×5 camera—the sort that requires a tripod and a black cloth over your head to operate—and began shooting buildings. But rather than photograph Knoxville’s most auspicious structures, he set up his gear to painstakingly record its more unusual “vernacular” buildings: dry cleaners, diners, old-time general stores. He would shoot them as if they were St. Paul’s Cathedral, at the correct perspective, often in the “golden hour” at dusk—“Velda Rose” being a prime example.
“I was just intrigued—it’s a stupid vernacular building, but it’s spectacular in its own way,” Hambright says. “I tried to capture its essence, the sort of thing that most people wouldn’t pay attention to. But somebody designs this stuff. Somebody comes up with all these things, these ideas—the way the building is and the way the sign is. Someone did that, and I’m sure it wasn’t a classically trained architect.”
Hambright spent almost the entire decade shooting Knoxville’s dark corners. He graduated from UT in 1976 at age 25 but couldn’t find any local work in architecture. So he decided instead to become a full-time architectural photographer—“if that was such a thing”—but didn’t get very busy at it until some of his friends began working at Washington, D.C., architectural firms and started sending him assignments. Seeing greener pastures, he finally moved to D.C. in 1980 and launched a successful career fulfilling the imaging needs of architects that continues today.
While he often returns to Knoxville (his culinarily inclined sisters are Margaret and Holly Hambright), he no longer photographs his hometown as he did in his youth. In fact, his shooting style has changed over the decades to become much more formal than his impromptu street photography—he no longer carries a camera around with him just in case a decisive moment should arise
Last year, Hambright digitized his old negatives for a retrospective exhibit in Brunswick, Ga.—and he found that his favorite shots were still the ones he had made back in the ’70s.
“The pictures that I really like, I just don’t shoot like that anymore,” he says with a certain amount of personal exasperation. “I don’t know if that’s because the novelty of photography is gone or if my outlook on life is changed or the way I see things has changed, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not seeing real life the same way as I did when I was in my early 20s.”
Nevertheless, what he saw over 40 years ago was a vision of Knoxville that most others either ignored or wanted to be gone. His photographs are the last record of a time when Knoxville may have not been a tourist destination yet, but it was a town with a soul of its own.
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